Infinite Jest: Part One


Year of Glad

The familiar panic at being misperceived is rising, and my chest bumps and thuds.
I am not what you see and hear.

There’s an amazing moment in the 1997 Charlie Rose interview that I’ve embedded above (transcript). Rose and David Foster Wallace have been chatting about academia and balancing writing with teaching, and Rose suggests that the reception of Infinite Jest has given Wallace the literary respect that he has been seeking. Wallace is visibly uncomfortable with that suggestion, and after ambivalently disagreeing for a couple of minutes, says “A lot of people hadn’t had time to read the book yet. So the stuff about me or interesting rumors that developed about the book and all that stuff getting attention — I found that — I didn’t like that very much just because I wanted people to write — to read the book. I’m sorry that I’m essentially stuttering.” To which Rose responds, ” No, you’re not. You’re doing just fine.”
That essential fear of communication, of desiring so much to express oneself to another while being paralyzed by the possibility of misunderstanding, is the central dynamic in this first section. The overwhelming horror that the three admissions officers have towards Hal’s personal statements are so over the top that the section becomes a darkly comic piece of absurdity. I think the episode in the interview shows that this “familiar panic at being misperceived” was something familiar to Wallace, and it’s hard for me not to read this section as Wallace’s personal nightmare. It also makes me think of my first times being under the influence of, say, alcohol. Because the self-control of intemperance was something new to me, I was paranoid that, even though the people I was with could hear and understand the words I was saying, nobody was understanding what I wanted to communicate. Social situations, especially new situations, give me some anxiety at being misunderstood, but it’s rare that it approaches the level described by Wallace through the eyes of Hal.
I think this section has some broad social implications as well. In the past couple of years, as internet communication has become more democratized, we’ve seen countless episodes that play out this conflict between communication and misunderstanding in public. Teenagers spreading embarrassing texts and pictures of each other. The ACORN video. Shirley Sherrod. NPR’s Vivian Schiller. Digging up politician’s college theses for provocative statements. And this has given rise to a whole industry trafficking in false communication speaking a false language. Politically incorrect public statements and emotionally neutral non-apologies. David Letterman interviewing Paris Hilton. Press releases apologizing for a star’s transgressions. We have more venues for wide-spread and instantaneous communication than ever before in human history. But with this freedom of communication comes a greater fear of one’s words being taken out of context. This can lead us to withdraw, to stop trying to communicate for fear of misunderstanding. At that moment, our more advanced communication tools actually impede true communication and human connection.

Stray Observations

  • Hal’s narration is clearly stylized and not-naturalistic. His vocabulary is absurdly tortured and his syntax convoluted (though probably grammatically correct). It throws off my perception of the character. Hal’s uncle is unquestionably presented as a buffoon, and yet all of that character’s linguistic tics (“And let me say if I may that Hal’s excited, excited to be invited for the third year running to the Invitational again, to be back here in a community he has real affection for, to visit with your alumni and coaching staff, to have already justified his high seed in this week’s not unstiff competition, to as they say still be in it without the fat woman in the Viking hat having sung, so to speak, but of course most of all to have a chance to meet you gentlemen and have a look at the facilities here.”) are also present, to a lesser degree, in Hal.
  • I’m going to interpret Hal’s annoying use of “de moi” to be a sign of pseudo- something.
  • I’m not sure how to take Hal’s characterization of the Director of Composition as “effeminate.” That word is almost always used as a pejorative, and frequently as code for gay. The effeminate academic cowering and jealous of the independent, masculine writer is a trope from Hemingway to Bukowski to Mailer. It just doesn’t seem to jibe with what I know of DFW.
  • At one point, Hal mentions that he thinks that Dennis Gabor is the Antichrist. Wikipedia tells me that Dennis Gabor was the inventor of hologram technology. This delights me to no end. Of couse Gabor would be the antichrist in a setting in which holographic transmissions are the dominant media form! It’s one of the early example of DFW world-building and differentiating the setting of his book from our own present.
  • Hal makes reference to a retired Venus Williams coming to watch his match the next day. Wikipedia sleuthing tells me that Williams was 16 at the time that Infinite Jest was published. That’s an impressive bit of prophecy on Wallace’s part.

new Vocabulary:

  • Wen: a boil or sebaceous cyst.
  • Kekuléan: refers to Friedrich August Kekulé von Stradonitz, the organic chemist who discovered the chemical structure of benzene. He supposedly came upon this structure after seeing a ouroboros, a snake eating its own tail.
  • Lapidary: a phrase engraved in stone or of suitable for engraving.
  • Presbyopia: farsightedness caused by loss of elasticity in the lens. Usually presents in middle age.
  • Parquet: wooden flooring made by geometrically arranged blocks.
  • Enfilade: a volley of gunfire directed in a straight line, end to end.
  • Espadrille: a light canvas shoe with a plaited fiber sole.
  • Martinet: a strict disciplinarian, especially in military context.
  • Etiology: the cause or set of causes of a disease or condition.

One response to “Infinite Jest: Part One”

  1. I’m so glad to see that people are continuing to blog about Infinite Jest, even though (the first) Infinite Summer has long past. Looking forward to reading more.

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